Camden soup kitchen to close after 26 years

Camden soup kitchen to close after 26 years

By ALAN GUENTHER
Courier-Post Staff

CAMDEN
Twenty-six years ago, a small handful of volunteers in North Camden decided they would make a difference with their lives by helping the poor.

They opened Leavenhouse, a soup kitchen and homeless shelter, at 644 N. State St.

Their goals were simple: If people needed homes, they would help find them. If they needed food, they would help feed them. And along the way, with a strong dose of activist politics, they hoped to change the city and improve the lives of the people they served.

But now, Tom Knoche, Dora Elmandorf, Teresa Rios and William Wright Jr. say it’s time to close the soup kitchen they set up in 1981.

They plan to serve their last meal Thursday.

The Volunteers of America will continue to offer housing for 28 homeless families provided shelter by Leavenhouse. But the soup kitchen will close.

The Cathedral Soup Kitchen will offer lunch to the homeless, Knoche said, but no organization has yet stepped forward to provide the 75 meals Leavenhouse served every weekday morning or the 150 lunches it served on Saturdays and Sundays.

For Alan Gatling, 53, who said he has struggled with homelessness and substance abuse in previous years, it will be a difficult adjustment to make.

“I’m not very good when I’m hungry,” Gatling said. “If I have to wait to lunch to eat, I guess I’ll be a very hungry man.”

If he fed himself breakfast, Gatling said, the $150 he gets monthly for food stamps would be gone before the end of the month.

After decades of fighting, the four Leavenhouse volunteers say they have grown tired and a bit disillusioned at how the need for help can seem to overwhelm their ability to supply it.

“Moving on is difficult,” said Knoche, 56. “But it’s necessary at this point. I’m facing burnout. I’ve been through burnout twice before in my life, and I don’t want to go through it again.”

Rios, 59, helps cook the meals Leavenhouse serves. She got her start with the group in the early 1980s. At the time, Knoche and other Leavenhouse volunteers decided to take a stand against the growing number of vacant, abandoned homes causing blight in the city.

Leavenhouse and the Concerned Citizens of North Camden put together a list of vacant homes that weren’t in danger of falling down. They told homeless people to pick a home from the list.

“When people picked their house, we said, ‘OK, you can move in now,’ even though we didn’t own the properties or anything,” Knoche remembers. In 1981, after Randy Primas had been elected as the city’s first black mayor, the group confronted him.

More than 170 people had occupied vacant homes, including Rios. Knoche said the group dared Primas to confront them and evict them.

He didn’t.

The squatters were allowed to stay, provided they could prove to city inspectors their homes had safe electrical and heating systems.

A Rutgers-Camden study, Knoche said, showed about 10 years ago, most of the people were still living in the homes they were given.

But now, Rios said, she grows stiff when she comes home from a hard day serving meals.

Elmandorf, 74, said she wants to spend time with her 99-year-old mother, Ethel Wills, who lives in Camden’s Branch Village section.

“I tried to talk her into me and her moving in together,” Elmandorf said. “But she said, no, she wants her own space. So what are you going to do?”

Dan Lombardo, president of Volunteers of America, said the Leavenhouse volunteers “are very special people.”

Leavenhouse was founded as a Catholic Workers House under the principles established by Dorothy Day in the 1930s. Day believed that homelessness was an “evil byproduct of capitalism” and she established places where people could find a haven.

“They’re putting their faith into action,” Lombardo said. “They’ve done everything with spit and gum. They’ve been an amazing organization to watch.”

The group charges rent for its homeless shelters. People living in an efficiency apartment pay $96 per month, Knoche said. The group serves its meals and makes ends meet on an annual budget of about $130,000 per year.

The four volunteers earn no salary and pay between $150 and $200 a month to live among the people they serve.

Knoche worked hard to mobilize North Camden residents to vote in the May 8 City Council election. He vigorously supported Carmen Ubarry-Rivera’s unsuccessful bid to unseat City Council President Angel Fuentes in the city’s 4th Ward.

Fuentes said he respects Knoche’s efforts to “fight social injustice.”

But he said Knoche’s support of Ubarry-Rivera “crossed a line.” He said he thought it was improper for Knoche to use the Leavenhouse as an informal campaign headquarters for Ubarry-Rivera.

Knoche makes no apologies for his political activism. While Elmandorf and Rios plan to retire, Knoche wants to stay involved in social issues, he said, but his plans are unresolved.

Wright, 47, said he will stay on as the apartment manager for the homeless.

He and Knoche estimate about 60 percent of the people who have stayed at Leavenhouse over the years are able to straighten out their lives and to some extent emerge ready to rejoin society.

And the other 40 percent?

“They get evicted,” Wright said. “That’s my job.”

People who have substance abuse or other problems are not allowed to disrupt the law-abiding tenants.

Reach Alan Guenther at (856) 317-7871. Published: May 28. 2007 3:10AM